Monday, October 5, 2015

Why a Bill on Gun Background Checks is So Hard to Pass

As Democrats prepare to unveil a bill requiring background checks on all gun purchases today, it is important to remember that 93% of Americans (and 90% of Republicans) support the idea. In light of that, why has it been so difficult to get a bill like that through Congress? President Obama recently said that, as voters, we've got work to do.
You have to make sure that anybody who you are voting for is on the right side of this issue. And if they’re not, even if they’re great on other stuff, for a couple of election cycles you’ve got to vote against them, and let them know precisely why you’re voting against them. And you just have to, for a while, be a single-issue voter because that’s what is happening on the other side.
The premise of that argument is that the power of the NRA (and other groups like them) comes from the fact that their members are prepared to vote against candidates who support any form of gun control. But for gun control advocates, that issue is often overshadowed by other priorities.

David Adkins appears to be making a similar case.
Gun control will pass precisely when legislators become more afraid of the votes of gun control supporters than they are of gun control opponents. That will only happen when interested organizations invest in mobilize voters on that issue, and when liberal organizations work to unseat Democrats who do the bidding of the NRA and replace them with ones who vote to protect the people. That is how the Tea Party accomplishes its goals: not by visibility protests or list-building campaigns, but by making examples of “RINO” Republicans and putting hardcore conservatives in their place. Many Democrats see that as “extremist” and bad form. But it isn’t. The Tea Party is extremist because of its positions, not because of its tactics.
To evaluate this idea, it is helpful to go back and take a look at the last time the Senate voted on the bill sponsored by Senators Toomey (R) and Manchin (D) that would have required background checks for gun purchases. The vote on that bill happened a few months after the Newtown shooting and getting Senator Manchin (a huge gun rights supporter) to sponsor such legislation was a major victory. In the end, 5 Republicans voted for the bill. But 4 Democrats voted against it. They were Mark Pryor (Ark.), Max Baucus (Mont.), Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), Mark Begich (Alaska). As a result, the vote was 54/46 and the bill failed to get the supermajority of 60 votes needed to pass.

So if we focus on Adkins more specific recommendation, what gun control advocates need to do is identify candidates to challenge Senators in states like Arkansas, Montana, North Dakota and Alaska in primaries on the issue of gun background checks. I wouldn't totally dismiss such a strategy. But when you get specific about what it means, you begin to see why its a challenge. Those are all fairly red states and the fact that we had Democrats serving in those seats at all (Pryor and Begich have since been replaced by Republicans) was likely a result of their more conservative-leaning positions. Beyond that, voters in predominantly rural states like Montana, North Dakota and Alaska rarely experience the kind of gun violence that is often more associated with urban areas. Field work in those states to mobilize voters who are willing to prioritize background checks for gun purchases would indeed be an uphill battle.

On the other hand, here are the Republicans who voted for background checks: Senators John McCain (Ariz.), Susan Collins (Maine), Pat Toomey (Pa.) and Mark Kirk (Ill.). Both Toomey and Kirk are from relatively blue states that are home to large urban centers. While Arizona is still considered a red state, its demographics are changing fast and Maine tends to be pretty independent. That is why voters in both Arizona and Maine give their Senators more leeway to be, as McCain would say, "mavericks" when it comes to Republican positions.

Ultimately, for President Obama's suggestion to work, it would require Republicans and Independents in red and swing states (most likely those with major metropolitan areas) to become single issue voters on gun background checks. Is that likely to happen in this climate? I doubt it. But it doesn't hurt to put it out there.

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